Tag: northeast

The Tyneside Keels

Most Tynesiders are familiar with the “The Keel Row”, a popular song dating back to the early 18th century and perhaps the oldest in Tyneside’s song anthology. But what was a keel and why is the name so special?

Weel may th’ keel row that maw lad’s in!

Before the mid 1800’s, the River Tyne was neither dredged nor equipped with the staithes and chutes necessary for loading colliers that carried the coal to ports around Britain and beyond.  The shallow river shoreline meant that ships had to anchor in deeper water, mid-river. It was then the job of the keels to ferry the coal from shore to the waiting ships.  A humble task to be sure, but for over six hundred years, keel boats performed an important part in the success of Tyneside’s coal industry; the men who manned them forming colourful communities that were largely closed to outsiders.

Keels provided a critical transportation link for the coal industry, enabling mine owners to sell their product to customers around the world.  The first written record of coal keels on the River Tyne was made in 1266 and for the next five centuries, mention of the humble keel boat continues to pop-up in various official records, clear evidence of their continuous use on the river.  By the late 18th century there were an estimated 500 keels working on the River Tyne, employing close to 2,000 men.  But the advent of steam-driven tugs able to tow a number of unmanned keels at a time, as well as improvements to the river allowing ships to quickly load from shore-based coal staithes, spelled the decline of traditional keel boats and the men who crewed them.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, the last of the Tyneside keels had disappeared, taking with them an unbroken tradition stretching back at least 600 years.

“As aw was gawn thro’ San’get aw he’rd th’ lasses sing-

Keelmen and their families lived in tightly knit communities centred mainly around the Sandgate area of Newcastle.  The crew of a typical keel was usually comprised of family members, close friends or neighbours and it was common practice for jobs to be passed from father to son; outsiders would find it difficult to enter the trade.  A fitting example of the closeness of the keelmen and the bond they had with their community, was exhibited in 1701 when the Keelman’s Society opened a hospital on Newcastle’s City Road, built with money raised through weekly contributions from their wages. The Keelman’s Hospital building is still standing to this day, although sadly, it remains unoccupied. 

Courtesy Newcastle City Library

Keelmen were comparatively well-paid, earning between 11s 8d and 13s 4d for each trip, in addition to a beer allowance, called a “can”.  To get an idea of their value, this was roughly equivalent to three to four times the daily wage of the average tradesman at the time.  However, work in the winter was often scarce and even in summer, a successful round-trip was still dependent on fair weather that would otherwise prevent ships from entering the river.  

“He wears a blue bonnet, a bunch of ribbons on it, He wears a blue bonnet, a dimple in his chin.

The colourful shore attire of keelmen was unique and quickly identified them as such.  They wore a short blue jacket over a yellow waistcoat, the jacket coming down to within an inch or two of slate-grey trousers which hung on their hips, leaving a margin of white shirt between the two.  Topping off the ensemble, was a black silk hat with a flat brim, adorned with two black ribbons each tied in a bow with a streaming five- or six-inch long tail.   

Despite the finery they’d exhibit while ashore, it was a hard life and the job was not one for the weak or feeble.  They were reliant on wind and tides, the vagaries of which could easily strand a boat and its crew overnight, forcing them sleep on deck or huddle for shelter in the sparse cabin on the aft deck.  Each round trip would take 12 to 15 hours to complete and unless the wind and tide worked perfectly in their favour, the heavy keel would have to be rowed to its destination.  A collier would typically carry 25 keels of coal, loading four keels at a time, two each side, with trimmers working in the hold making sure the cargo was level and would not cause any instability once the ship was at sea. As soon as they were alongside, the keelmen would begin the backbreaking work of unloading their cargo – a little over 21 tons of coal – this being the standard load of a keel as regulated in 1635. In fact, a ‘keel’ load became an official measure, each ‘keel’ amounting to eight Newcastle chaldrons which, as a consequence, led to all coal keels being built to the same size. 

Courtesy Newcastle City Library

Like the coal-industry itself, the Tyne keels have given us several archaic dialect words.   

The crew of a keel were known as bullies, meaning comrades or brothers, reflecting the tight bond that existed between keelmen and probably stemming from the Anglo-Saxon word, billig, meaning beloved or denoting those that are on an equal footing.  The word is not strictly Northumbrian however, and was in common use especially among seafarers.

In addition to a skipper and two bullies, a keel would also employ a boy who was simply known as peedee, or as it was sometimes spelled, P.D.  This was a Northumbrian dialect wordprobably derived from the French word petite, meaning small. 

On the stern deck of most keel boats was a small cabin, known as a huddick or huddock.  It would contain a stove for heating or cooking as well as providing shelter for the crew.  It’s another word which seems to be uniquely Northumbrian and is thought to derive from the Dutch word hut, meaning steerage.

General Plan of a Keel Boat

Although keels were equipped with a lug sail and were handy sailboats despite their ungainly shape, each boat also had two long oars; one located on the port side for propulsion and one on the stern which acted both as a rudder and a means to propel the boat using a technique known as sculling.  This was a skill that required the long stern oar to be moved back and forth in a wide sweeping motion and fittingly was known as a swape, a wordcoming directly from the Anglo-Saxon and meaning, to sweep.

Some of the keelmen’s wives and daughters worked as keel deeters, the name given to those who kept the grimy boats clean.  This word was derived from the Saxon word, dihtan of the same meaning.

The word keel, however, has a much longer pedigree and may well be the granddaddy of all Northumbrian dialect words.  Its origins date back to the 6th century writings of the Anglo-Saxon historian, Gildas, who tells us of the arrival of the English at the behest of the war lord, Vortigen, to help him in his battles with the Scots and Picts.  Gildas, highly resentful of these pagan English interlopers wrote, “Then a litter of cubs issuing forth from the lair of the lioness of Beornicas, in three cyuls, as it is expressed in their tongue, in ours, long-ships.”  As Gildas wrote entirely in Latin, the English word, cyuls stands out and at once becomes the oldest recorded word in the English language.  

Remarkably, the ancient Angle accent has also been retained, and can be heard in the way Tynesiders pronounce the word.  As Oliver Heslop (1844-1916), the Newcastle-born lexicologist and author of ‘Northumberland Words’ noted, “In the Tyneside pronunciation of keel… a fractured vowel sound is heard.  This can hardly be better rendered than by the phonetic form – kyul – given by Gilda.”

A New Book On North-East Music History

Tyneside Song by Dave Harker


In his latest book, Tyneside Song, author and historian, Dave Harker draws together work on a collection of fascinating people – a contrast to his other books on individual North-East performers and song-makers. Here we meet fiddler-singers Blind Willy Purvis and Bobby Nunn, pioneer documenter of North East instrumental music Robert Topliff, the great song collector John Bell, bagpipe-maker Robert Reed, printers John Marshall and the Fordyce brothers, concert hall proprietor John Balmbra and James Catnach from Alnwick, who became a famous London ballad printer. Dave vividly shows singers and songwriters facing difficulties in their own lives and engaged with the struggles of their audiences in a fast-changing industrial society. He reproduces many original songs and illustrations providing a wealth of historical contextualisation that allows readers to experience, explore and interpret the rich material. Dave’s eight books on North East culture constitute the best account we have of regional song in nineteenth century Britain. 
Vic Gammon

Dave Harker was born in Guisborough in the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1946. He won a scholarship to Guisborough High School and went on to study at Jesus College, Cambridge where he gained a BA and later, a PhD. He was a Senior Lecturer in Trade Union Studies at Manchester Polytechnic later becoming a Senior Lecturer in English. Always active in social organisations, Dave built two miner’s support groups in 1984-85 and in the 1990s, was an officer with the National Association of Teachers (Further Education Branch). He was the founding secretary of the North West Retired Members branch of the University and College and Union and an officer of the Manchester Trades Union Council. Dave moved to Newcastle in 2015 where he has become an active researcher and chronicler of North East history. Their Geordies and Ours is a definitive essay on the origins of the nickname, Geordie and can be read on this site by clicking here. His many published works include:

The Gallowgate Lad – Joe Wilson’s Life and Songs
Cat-gut Jim The Fiddler – Ned Corvan’s Life and Songs
Billy Purvis – The First Professional Geordie
Gannin’ To The Blaydon Races – The Life and Times of George Ridley
Songs and Verses of North-East Pitmen c.1780-1844
Songs From The Manuscript Collection of John Bell
George Ridley – Gateshead Poet and Vocalist

Tyneside Song is available for £20.00 directly from Dave Harker. To purchase a this or other books by Dave, please contact him by clicking here.

The Cullercoats Fish-Wife and the Census Man

Fishwives were a popular sight in Northeast fishing communities during the days of herring-fishing. Many would follow the fishing fleet from Aberdeen to Lowestoft, skillfully wielding their razor-sharp knives to gut and fillet the small fish with lightning speed. Others would sell fish on the streets, carrying them on their backs in creels.
This light-hearted essay was written by Fred M. Gascoigne and published in “Tyneside Songs, Volume Two (Third Edition)” by J.G Windows Ltd in 1929.

A chep come knockin’ at wor front door the tother day, so Aa puts me heed oot o’ the window to see whe it waas, an’ it wes a cockeyed chep wi’ ginger hair an’ a clooty hat an’ sum papors iv he’s hand.
“Good mornin’, Mrs. Salmon,” he sez.
“What d’ye want,” Aa sez, for Aa thowt he wes one o’ the “bums” wiv a summons.
“Hoot’s hinny,” he sez, “Aa divvent mean that. “Aa want the census papor Aa left heor tother day.”
“Wey,” Aa sez, “What for cuddn’t ye a’telt us that afore ’isteed of axin’ a body for thor senses.”
So he sez, “Howay doon an’ Aa’ll fill’d up fer ye.”
So Aa gans doon an’ he sets hes’sel doon at wor kitchen tyebble an’ bless yor sowl ye nivver hare sec questions as he axed us.
He sez, “Noo Aa want te knaa, whe’s the heed o’ the hoose?”
Aa sez, “Whe’s the heed o’ the hoose? Wey the chimley’s the heed o’ the hoose.”
“No, no,” he sez. “Are ye married?”
“Is Aa whaat?” Aa sez. “Aa’ll gie ye a skelp i’ the gob the-recklies. Ye’ll just unnorstand Aa’s a respectible married wummin, -and mind that,” Aa sez.
“Varry good,” he sez. “Then yor husband’s the heed o’ the hoose.”
“Wey,” Aa sez, “If he’s the heed Aa’s the neck an’ the heed’s ne use wivoot the neck onyway.”
“Well,” he sez, “Noo Aa want the nyems an’ the full prescriptions of aall yor bairns.”
“Aye, wey,” Aa sez. “Well thor’s wor Bobby poor sowl, he’s a bit bowlegged, but he cuddent help that, poor bairn, he wes put doon when he wes soft. An’ then thor’s wor little Tommy – a canny bit lad – but he’s the tother way, poor thing – he’s nackneed – but it’s not he’s fault – it’s weakness – he wes browt up on the bottle, ye knaa. An’ then thor’s wor Lizzie Ann, she’s …”
“Stop, stop,” he sez. “What Aa want te knaa is what sex they are.”
“Oh!” Aa sez, “Wey some’s Roman Candles, an’ some’s Chorch ov Ingland, an’ the rest gans te the Bord Skeul.”
“Hoots wummin,” he sez, “That’s not it at aall – what Aa want to knaa is – Are they males or females?”
“Oh!” Aa sez, “That’s easy eneuf – the lads’ is males an’ the lasses is females.”
“Varry well,” he sez and he put that doon. “Noo,” he sez, “Aa want to knaa yor age.”
“Wey hinny,” Aa sez, “Aa divvent knaa mesel, but wor Nanny wes fowerty fower last Race Wednesda’, an’ Aa’s ‘ite yeer aader nor hor com next Pancake Tuesday, so mevvies ye can reckon it up yorsel.”
“Noo,” he sez, “Aa hev a varry importent questin’ te ax ye. What’s yor husband?”
“Wey,” Aa sez, “He’s a nowt.”
“But what dis he de for a livin?” he sez.
“Nowt ,” sez Aa.
“Wey, then we’ll caall ‘im independent,” he sez, “That is, he leeves on he’s aan means!”
“No, hinny, he dissent,” Aa sez, “He leeves on he’s freends.”
“Varry well,” he sez. “That’s aall the syem – that’s independent.”
“De ye say se,” sez Aa, “Wey Aa divvent call that independent.”
“Aye,” he sez, “An what de ye call it?”
“Wey, hinny,” Aa sez, “Aa call that ‘spongin’!”
An’ then he sez, “Noo Aa’ve on’y one more questin te axe ye.”
“Aye,” Aa sez, “An’ what’s that?”
“What de ye de for a livin’?”

“Ma hinny,” Aa sez, “De ye not knaa Aad Mary, the fish wife, ivverybody knaa’s me – (shouts) “Caller harn fresh harn. Caller harn. Will ye buy ony Fi……….ssh.”

To make the essay easier to read, the original publication was modified by using the commonly accepted practice of separating the dialogue with a new line as the speaker changes. Otherwise it is entirely as originally published.
The lexicon contains translations of dialectical vocabulary. Words such as knaa (know), syem (same), and leeves (leaves) for example, are phonetic spellings of the dialectical pronunciation and are not included.